By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; A10
JERUSALEM -- After spending most of Tuesday celebrating what he called the "unshakable" bond between the United States and Israel, Vice President Biden ended the day strongly condemning the longtime U.S. ally for approving 1,600 new housing units in disputed east Jerusalem -- an awkwardly timed move that threatened to kill a new push for Mideast peace by the Obama administration.
The housing announcement -- affecting an area Palestinians view as their future capital -- soured Biden's efforts to re-energize the United States' relationship with Israel, which has felt snubbed by President Obama, who has yet to visit. It also came a day after Israel and the Palestinians agreed to U.S.-mediated, indirect peace negotiations after a year of no talks on Palestinian statehood.
Before the late afternoon announcement, Biden had highlighted the U.S. commitment to Israeli security and its promise not to let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon. He stressed his personal admiration for the country and the Jewish people, and visited two of Israel's most hallowed sites, Mount Herzl national cemetery and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum.
But after learning of the announcement, Biden kept Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu waiting 90 minutes before dinner as he and his aides mulled what to say in the statement. They ultimately opted to use the word "condemn," which is rarely used in diplomatic terms when criticizing the behavior of close allies.
"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," Biden said in a statement released during the meal. "The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel."
"We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them," Biden added, just hours after he had declared there was a "real opportunity" for talks to move forward.
The future of Jerusalem is a central dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, resolution of which has eluded U.S. peace negotiators for decades. U.S. mediator George Mitchell has been exploring creative peacemaking formulas that would push the Jerusalem question to later in the negotiations and begin with talks on borders for a future Palestinian state and security arrangements.
As of Tuesday, the precise scope and structure of the "proximity" talks had not been agreed to, making the timing of the Israeli decision not only embarrassing for Biden but also perilous for the new peace effort as well.
A spokesman for Eli Yishai, the interior minister who announced the new construction, said that the plan approved by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee has been in the works for more than three years. The decision might have blindsided Netanyahu, who is focused on cultivating ties with the Obama administration to ensure it remains committed to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
The Interior Ministry described the decision as "a procedural stage in the framework of a long process that will yet continue for some time" and said Tuesday's meeting on the new construction "was determined in advance and there is no connection to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel."
Hagit Ofran, who tracks Jewish settlement activity and construction in east Jerusalem for the pro-peace organization Peace Now, said that if "Netanyahu truly wanted to promote the talks, he would have prevented any provocation in Jerusalem."
The announcement could make it hard for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Biden is scheduled to meet Wednesday, to return to talks. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the move was "destroying" Mitchell's mediation effort.
The housing units would be added to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo. Under pressure from the Obama administration, Israel agreed in November to a 10-month moratorium on most new construction in the West Bank as a means of coaxing Abbas back to peace negotiations.
The moratorium did not include construction in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and subsequently annexed and populated in a move not recognized by the international community. Peace negotiations, as they've been carried out in recent years, have focused on the prospect of the Palestinians having east Jerusalem as a capital of a future Palestinian state.